Photo: Nasjonalmuseet

Revisiting the surface: Edvard Munch and varnish coatings. Investigating conservation controversies and their preservation challenges for collections.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944) is well represented worldwide, but the National Museum of Art is the first Norwegian public institution to have collected, endorsed, displayed and conserved Munch’s art during his lifetime. The 57 paintings, acquired over a 79-year period (1891–1970), are still regarded as the most iconic ensemble in the museum. Since 1909, these paintings have been presented as a single-artist collection and exhibited through the curated Munch Room display concept. Between 1909 and 1993 many of the unvarnished paintings were controversially varnished.

The aim of the research project was to gain knowledge about the painted surfaces and non-original varnishes in this Munch collection. A group case study was used to establish the historical context and a non-invasive methodological approach explored for the technical investigations. The conservator’s perspective was key in the choice of user-friendly, cost-effective and practical examination techniques. Portable Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (pFTIR) and optical coherence tomography (OCT) were tested as the two main diagnostic techniques. The theoretical framework of ‘object itineraries’ was employed to trace the conservation narratives of the paintings over time.

The findings contextualise and give a more objective perspective of the museum’s past varnish practice. A complete varnish survey of the collection (1909–2019) was created, and three varnish time periods were identified as relevant historical markers. The diagnostic techniques helped to shed new light on Munch’s painting technique and surface effects from his earlier period (1884–1900). Finally, four interlinked papers contribute to a decision-making model with a flexible design framework that can be adapted to similar collections.

In sum, this research project provides knowledge about non-original varnishes and the conservation history of this Munch collection. Moreover, it contributes to our knowledge of conservation methodology, long-term care, decision-making strategies and the base of Munch’s artistic legacy.

The thesis is available here

Peer reviewed articles/papers

Read Thierry Ford, Tine Frøysaker and Ella Hendriks' article «Bridging the gap between the Munch Room display and the conservation narrative: a decision-making model» in ArtMatters International Journal for Technical Art History (published November 2022).

Read Thierry Ford, Magdalena Iwanicka, Elena Platania, Piotr Targowski and Ella Hendriks' article «Munch and optical coherence tomography: unravelling historical and artist applied varnish layers in painting collections» in The European Physical Journal Plus (Published September 2021).

Read Thierry Ford's conference paper «An integrated conservation approach to a historical collection: The controversial varnishing of Munch’s paintings» from ICOM-CC 19th Triennial Conference 2021.

Read Thierry Ford, Adriana Rizzo, Ella Hendriks, Tine Frøysaker og Francesco Caruso's article «A non-invasive screening study of varnishes applied to three paintings by Edvard Munch using portable diffuse reflectance infrared Fourier transform spectroscopy (DRIFTS)» in Heritage Science (Published October 2019).

Principal researcher

Thierry Ford. Senior Paintings Conservator, Conservation Dept., National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, 0130, Oslo, Norway. PhD candidate, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History (IAKH), Conservation Studies, University of Oslo (UiO), Norway.

Participating researchers and collaborative partners

Main supervisor: Prof. dr. Ella Hendriks, Programme Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, University of Amsterdam (UvA), Johannes Vermeerplein 1, 1071 DV Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Co-supervisor: Prof. dr. Tine Frøysaker, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History (IAKH), Conservation Studies, University of Oslo (UiO), Postboks 1008 Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway.

Co-supervisor: Adriana Rizzo, Senior Research Scientist, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Scientific Research, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028.

Co-supervisor: Dr. Elena Platania, Hylleraas Centre for Quantum Molecular Sciences, Department of Chemistry, University of Oslo, Blindern, Post Box 1033, 0315 Oslo, Norway.

Dr. Francesco Caruso, Department of Art Technology, Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA), Zollikerstrasse 32, 8032 Zurich, Switzerland.

Prof. dr hab. Piotr Targowski, Institute of Physics, Nicolaus Copernicus University. Ul, Grudziadzka 5, 87-100 Toruń, Poland.

Dr. Magdalena Iwanicka, Department for Conservation and Restoration of Paintings and Polychromed Sculpture, Faculty of Fine Arts, Nicolaus Copernicus University, ul. Gagarina 7, 87-100 Toruń, Poland.